What I Learned On My Way to My Novel

Part of the fun of doing historical research is finding the quirks of famous people.  My writing partner, Gail Upp (really her name), and I included some of these into World Enough and Time, the mystery-romance we are writing.  We discovered them while researching the 18 famous artists, writers, musicians and mathematicians who time-travel into the future.  Some didn’t make the cut, some did.  Below are tidbits we enjoy.  Hope you do, too.

Felix Mendelssohn didn’t butter his toast, he dunked it into his coffee.

Jane Austen loved the color yellow.

Ludwig van Beethoven liked his coffee so strong that it took 60 beans to make one cup.  He also like mac & cheese.

Christopher Marlowe was killed—possibly assassinated—in a swordfight where he was fighting three other men.  Take that, Errol Flynn!

The artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a murderer, who was condemned by the Pope.  He (Caravaggio) left town quickly.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was left-handed, and may have had Asperger’s Syndrome.

Ada Augusta King, Countess Lovelace, was a computer pioneer.  Although she died in 1852 she created computer programs for computers which didn’t exist yet.  In the 1940s her programs were loaded onto computers, and they worked.  The computer programming language ADA is named for her.  She was also Lord Byron’s only legitimate offspring.

Franz Schubert was only 5’2”, and so near-sighted he sometimes fell asleep wearing his glasses.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was a vegetarian.

The poet Amy Lowell was part of the famous Lowell family of Massachusetts.  The town of Lowell, MA is named for a relative.

Charles Baudelaire kept a bat in a cage by his writing desk.

What quirks do you think people will remember about you after your death?

Gustav, Gustavo and Me (Part the Last)

To condense the rehearsals for Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (hereinafter “M8”):  Our next rehearsal was at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion—the opera house—where we took up about one-third of the seats.  It was our first rehearsal with Gustavo “The Dude” Dudamel.  Everyone calls him Gustavo.  Everyone.  The backdrop was the set for “Simon Boccanegra,” which was the next opera production coming up.  It’s a huge, pseudo-Roman set on a raked stage and is impressive on a scale that made it perfect for the Symphony of a Thousand.  Gustavo is an incredibly physical conductor.  When he was instructing the sopranos how to sing the word “amorem” (love) he said, “You should embrace the audience, and make them want to embrace you.”  To demonstrate, he embraced the standing microphone next to him.  He also said that he had had a rehearsal of Mahler’s Ninth in the morning, conducted a performance of the Sixth in the afternoon (Joe and I were present for that), and now was here conducting a rehearsal for the Eighth.  “My brain is all right, but my arms are very tired.”  After a pause:  “Well, my brain is tired, too.”

The next rehearsal was in Disney Hall, where (leitmotiv alert) we took up about half the seats.  It was also the first time we met our soloists.  They are excellent, especially the mezzo-sopranos, plural.  There are eight soloists.  The first time we let loose with the opening “Veni, creator spiritus” we actually rocked the two soprano soloists backward.  Very satisfying.  I have to tell you, 400 tenors and basses letting loose is an impressive thing.  It feels like riding a tsunami.  For those of you who haven’t ridden a tsunami, close your eyes and let yourself fall off a roof.  It feels like that.

From this point on all our rehearsals were on stage at the Shriner’s Auditorium (hereinafter the “Shrine”).  This is a cavernous, mouldering hall, and pretty much the only indoor venue that could accommodate the forces needed.  Even then the stage had to be extended.  Look here for a schematic, and here for an article about it.  It was also the first time we worked with the orchestra.  All 200+ of them, including an organ, an offstage (actually in a box) brass ensemble and four harps, two of whom were from the LA Phil, and two of whom were teenagers from the Simón Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela.  And of course, Gustavo.  And a soloist we hadn’t met:  She sang the Mater Gloriosa (Glorious Mother, i.e., the Virgin Mary) from another box across the stage from the brass ensemble, where it says “Original Opera Box.”  She was in a spotlight and had a truly heavenly voice.  Click here for the full review.

We went into full court press mode on Friday, February 3.  We had a rehearsal that Friday in the morning, then the dress on Saturday morning, then the performance on Saturday evening.  (And I then had to be up at 5:30 Sunday morning for a rehearsal and two services at All Saints.)  Some pictures of the backstage area are at right.  It’s amazing how smoothly everything went at the performance.  Kathie Freeman, Grant Gershon’s assistant (see two previous blogs) did a massive Excel seating chart, and a list of seating, andtaped the line-up order to the floor of the Expo Hall at the Shrine.  We nominated her for canonization.

Grant Gershon and Kathie Freeman 2-4-12

How to describe the actual performance?  How would you respond to someone asking you what a transcendental emotional and spiritual experience was like?  “It was swell.”  This was swell.  Also neat and keen.  I’ve decided that the M8 isn’t so much a symphony in two movements, but rather a sacred opera.  The first act is a prayer to the creative spirit, “Veni creator spiritus,” a 9thCentury prayer.  The

The Children Warm Up 2-4-12

result of the assimilation of the creative spirit is Act Two, the last scene of Goethe’s “Faust,” set so heart-stoppingly that those who claim Mahler was a mystic (minus the meditation and levitation) are probably right.  For anyone who claims that he was fixated on death, I strongly recommend a glass of wine, a quiet room, a comfortable chair and a good recording of the M8.  Find a recording, if one exists, made with the full complement.  The performance that Gustavo, the LA Phil and the Bolivars are preparing for February 18 in Caracas will be a DVD and a CD, and it will be performed with 1,600+ people, as opposed to the puny 1,000+ here in LA.

The Orchestra with Projection Screen 2-3-12

There isn’t a good way to describe the experience.  For singers, the voice, when supported by that many other voices and that huge an orchestra, just soars through the piece.  And it’s a difficult piece, with sustained high Bs and Cs for the sopranos.  It makes Beethoven’s Ninth seem like a walk in the park, vocally speaking.  It was like being carried away by sound so massive, it became as physical as a brick wall, but lovelier.  Try to listen to the Caracas recording.  Really.

This blog is long already, so I’ll stop.  My next blog will be on writing, and we can hardly wait.  If enough people want to know more about the M8 performance, my arm can be twisted.  Until next time, stay healthy and do what feeds your soul.  You’ll never have a more nutritious meal.

P.S.  Look in the lower left-hand corner of this picture.

Sharon in the Eighth (credit: Los Angeles Times)

The Fire or the Mahler?

I have two choices about what to blog.  On Saturday evening, February 4, I participated in a rare performance (and an LA premier) of the Mahler 8th Symphony with the full forces requested by Gustav Mahler.  There were over 1,000 people—chorus and orchestra—on stage.  The Mahler 8 has been performed in Los Angeles, but with only (only!) about 350 musicians.

Let’s go with the fire.  On Sunday evening a fire broke out in the unit next door to us.  It was very serious, generating heat so severe that the blinds in an upstairs, closed room melted.  Fortunately it was contained in the unit itself.  My husband heard something heavy fall, went outside to look and saw smoke billowing from the front door.  He called 911 and pounded on the doors of the other units to alert the homeowners.  The tenant who was in Unit 3 wasn’t home.

The Fire Department was there in three minutes.  It does help that we live about a half-mile from a fire station.  They work fast!  In a few minutes they broke the door open, dragged very long hoses in, and went in themselves wearing gas masks and eye shields.  It was impressive as hell.  They even got the two dogs (huge mastiffs) out safely.

No one, thank God, was hurt.  We found out that because of the heat it could have easily spread to other units.  We dodged a bullet.

One of the other homeowners called the owners of the unit, and they came down.  They were upset, obviously.  Before they rented out, they put in about $50,000 worth of improvements, including new floors and rugs.  All ruined.  The tenant had run out only for a few minutes to buy some Gatorade.  That’s how fast it happened.

The firefighters paid almost no attention to any of us until the fire was out, which is exactly as it should be.  Then we spent almost another hour giving them information.  Joe, who is President of the HOA got most of the questions.  The dogs went to the vet, and then to the home of the unit’s owners.  I don’t know where the tenant is staying.

So we are now involved with our HOA manager, insurance companies (who will be conducting investigations as to the cause), construction companies, and etcetera.  The LAFD will be conducting its own investigation.

Fortunately, one of the homeowners is a businesswoman with her own management firm.  She has a network of insurance companies, construction firms and—inevitably—lawyers.  Let the games begin.  Sigh.

We walked through the unit the next day.  It’s a total loss.  Joe made sure the electricity and water were off.  The walls are black, there is debris all over; the time estimate for cleaning is about two months.  The tenant had just spent about $20,000 on new furniture and furnishings.  A huge flatscreen TV was semi-melted.  The intercom and thermostat were melted.  Blinds were melted.  We’ve already had an emergency crew in to cover the broken windows with plywood.  We need to have our own insurance company in to test the integrity of our walls.  They’re probably all right, but we gotta check.

Oh, and firemen really do wear red suspenders.

So please be careful, people.  It can happen in a flash.

Conclusion of the Mahler next time.